Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What is a Voice Poem?

At its heart, a voice poem is about this nebulous term we know as "voice."  The easiest way I've found to think of this is to imagine the voices of people I've met and picking apart the interesting differences that come out.  Unfortunately, this can be harder than it sounds - most of the people we know and hang out with speak the same way we do.  They are interested in the same topics, and they often hold the same views and opinions.  And this is somewhat natural.  Just think about chemistry: we're kinda the lipids in olive oil doing our best to avoid the wrong-headed vinegar peeps in our lives.

When I think of voice, I have to picture the people I've met who wouldn't have normally become close friends of mine.  And I've been fortunate - in the military, I met Americans from all walks of life, including many who were born overseas and then decided to enlist.  Yet their voices were distinctly different from the people I've met while traveling in Germany, and they are vastly different from the voice of my girlfriend, who grew up in Thailand and has only lived in the U.S. for a short time.

To a large degree, the different "voices" I hear in reference these friends are usually a product of accent.  But we need to go deeper than mere accent - deeper even than common phrases.  For example, while on R&R from Afghanistan (in 2005), I went to Germany.  One conversation I had was with a student visiting the Cologne Cathedral.  We talked for a bit about me being an American tourist, about the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict, and a bit about her thoughts on World Youth Day.  But then she asked what I did for a living - I told her I was "a soldier in the most popular army in the world" (and I said this in German).  And that killed the conversation.

As you can imagine, the American Army was not very popular in Europe at the height of the Iraq War.  And the way the girl fell silent would be an essential element of her voice if we were to write a poem from her perspective regarding the war.  It might go something like this:
I met a soldier
He seemed nice,
but he would, wouldn't he?
All Americans do.
There's just a touch of sarcasm, and a large degree of disinterest.  It wouldn't be that this voice hates Americans or even the war - this voice doesn't really care to think much about them.  They only "seem" nice.

Compare to if we were to switch voices to the American perspective - same situation, same event, different voice:
I met a girl today,
long hair,

Never should have said
who I am.
You see right away that the speaker here has very different intentions - he's hoping for something.  But then it changes - there's this loneliness at the end, something we don't expect from someone hitting on a girl, especially not from this image we might have of "the soldier on leave."

Something important to note is the way a voice poem can be nuanced.  In the second poem, I pointed out the two differing feelings affecting the narrator.  We have some of this in the first poem as well, but it isn't as strong.  The female narrator is not exploring her own feelings much, and that, too, is a product of voice.  To this narrator, this isn't a scene isn't worth evaluating - she met someone not worth meeting.  It won't change her life.  If we wanted a poem where this meeting would change her life, we'd have to change the voice somewhat:
I have heard
that the Americans
want only oil.

Why, then, do they smile?
Say "Hello"
like they mean it?

Should I worry?
 Again - same situation.  Friendly, smiling American meets a German girl who doesn't want to talk with him.  But now we have a different take, and the voice is different.  This female narrator isn't dismissive - she's concerned.  Wary.  It changes the tone a great deal.

Now that we have these three examples, I'd like you to notice that the language is relatively unchanged from poem-to-poem.  They are written in a very flat, colloquial English.  But this makes sense - each one is written in my own personal style, with little variation between them.  The language is not the critical component of voice in a voice poem.  If anything, a flatter style can allow the voice to come through more clearly.  Let's turn back to our happy American - what if wrote in an "Army" style?
So I met this chick
out on leave.

Real nice girl.

Shoulda never told her
what I do.
In this poem, there's no hint of loneliness - this narrator only wants something, and he's disappointed that he didn't get it.  Lonely, though?  Doesn't sound like it.  The way he talks about the girl - "this chick" and "real nice girl" - shows that he's pretty much dismissed her intellectually.  And this is important - it reveals his voice.  It's the same poem as before, but the changing language has radically altered the meaning.

I hope this helps clarify what voice poems are and how they work.  As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail or leave a comment below.


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